The return of Sakura Wars is a big deal in Japan. In the West, though, it’s more of another attempt at introducing the franchise. It feels like both of these purposes were kept in mind during the game’s development! Efforts were made to reference the old while making sure it was a good jumping-in point for both a domestic and global audience. As such, it doesn’t really settle particularly well in either aim, but alternating between two very different sorts of games at once has long been the series’ signature style.
In Sakura Wars‘ narrative sequences, “play” largely boils down to your response to the characters’ questions. This system, a series mainstay known as LIPS, puts strict time limits on you and makes you choose before you really have time to think. Usually, this is from a small set of answers. Occasionally, however, the game will switch it up and give you an intensity meter to set or an environment to point and click as a prompt for your choice.
Out of these, the intensity meter is certainly the toughest one to judge. Often, you’ll have a meter that never changes text and it’s just about how much conviction and energy you put behind your words. What does half-full mean? How is that different from 60 percent full? It doesn’t really make that clear. The response list does have the usual issue sometimes, too: you pick a response and its shortened version was not a clear indication of its tone and direction. And all choices have to live within one main narrative. That means major events can’t change, and all that hangs in the balance is how happy each member is with your behavior.
To its credit, it’s largely forgiving on these segments. You can usually get a decent-or-better response as long as you don’t totally go in the wrong direction. Still: this would be a lot easier to deal with if it offered a quicker option for saving, reloading and trying again, which it very much doesn’t.
The Sakura Wars series has a legacy of adolescent antics. For better or worse, it’s definitely still here. There are scattered scenes of the military commander protagonist hiding in baths and dressing rooms, usually on accident but… still. There’s nothing remotely explicit here, and the narrative mechanics generally punish you for being there at all. Still, it would be nice if these moments were made more easily avoidable. Outside of these scenes, Sakura Wars is generally more respectful, but its camera angles – especially when revue member Hatsuho’s on the screen – really need to chill sometimes.
While the narrative shenanigans of LIPS are back, the strategic combat of its companion system, ARMS, isn’t. This new Sakura Wars scraps the turn-based tactical gameplay system of the past games for a generic third-person action scheme. It’s disappointing, since there are a ton of action games out there and the version in this game isn’t particularly inspired. Why get rid of what made Sakura Wars what it was? Still, we can take a look at what’s here, and honestly it could have ended up a lot worse.
Protagonist Seijuro Kamiyama is joined in each battle sequence by one or more of the members of the combat revue, fighting various demons with mecha weaponry. It feels a bit like a Musou game. You’ll fight with light attacks, strong attacks, meter-depleting specials and jumps each occupying a face button. There is more of an emphasis on traversal here, with boosting through corridors and around arenas becoming an important aspect of play.
In its combat segments, Sakura Wars doesn’t quite put its best foot forward, spending its first few chapters with straightforward monster room sequences. Toward the middle of the game, though, it does begin to show its tactical depth. In this part of the game, it throws players into head-to-head battles with other combat revues. Teams are judged based on the point value of monsters defeated, so scouting for high-value targets and positioning your team along the many platforms of the field to spend your limited time wisely does make for some interesting strategic decisions. (Though if the team battles were always going to be 3-on-3, perhaps enemy teams shouldn’t have only two named characters? Just a unique moniker for the third fighter would make a big difference.)
Each instanced skirmish in a combat map is set off with magical barriers, and waves ramp up bit by bit until you finish things off with a slow-motion attack. This is clearly intended to be a cool moment, with its interesting visual effects and camera work. Instead, though, it’s usually just one weak attack five seconds after the battle’s essentially over as you track down the one weak minion that wandered off alone to the other side of the room due to peculiar AI patterns.
Near the end of the campaign, Sakura Wars starts trying to be a platformer, a task for which it is ill-suited. When players will likely have enough trouble landing hits on flying enemies due to the camera system and the built-in movement of fighters’ attacks, this should be a given. Still, it tries. Ultimately, its movement is too fast and its combat animations in the final stretch regularly send you careening off small platforms and respawning a screen away.
Sakura Wars handles these weak points by lowering the consequences for failure. This lets players get through tough segments, but further waters down the point of the game’s hybrid nature: that the bonds in story sequences provide the combat bonuses needed to make it against tough demons. Here, it really doesn’t do that. It only increases a meter that gives you more damage output and makes maps take a bit less time.
While the franchise would be best suited by returning to its strategy roots, as a half-step revival after a long period of silence, Sakura Wars could be significantly worse at achieving its aims. If given the opportunity to make a sequel that embraces its successes and scraps its failures, it could be a welcome return indeed.
Sakura Wars will be available April 28, 2020 on PlayStation 4.